A battle over voting by mail is again being waged in an electoral contest. But now it’s Amazon that opposes a mail-ballot election in order to thwart a unionization effort at an Alabama fulfillment center.
In November, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, rejected Donald Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud, writing on Instagram just after the election, “By voting in record numbers, the American people proved again that our democracy is strong.”
Now, however, Amazon’s opposition to mail balloting threatens to undermine workplace democracy. In the era of Covid-19, it also endangers public health.
The voters in the election are nearly 6,000 warehouse employees at an Amazon Robotics sortable fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., a Birmingham suburb that was once a center of steel production. They receive, sort and package goods delivered across the South. They will cast ballots to decide whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers. With 40 coronavirus cases recently found at the warehouse, the union sought a mail-ballot election. The ballots are currently scheduled to be sent out on Feb. 8 and must be received by March 29.
If the Bessemer warehouse employees vote for union representation, it will be the first unionized Amazon workplace in the nation — a pivotal electoral victory for labor.
Union elections are supposed to be modeled on political elections; both are systems of representative democracy. Employees, like citizens, are entitled to vote for “representatives of their own choosing,” according to the National Labor Relations Act. The authors of the act called this “industrial democracy.”
The campaign against mail balloting in union elections is Amazon’s latest assault on industrial democracy. And it is one corrosive to political democracy as well.
Following the lead of state legislatures and courts during the pandemic, the National Labor Relations Board authorized mail voting. Since Covid’s onset, about 90 percent of union elections have been conducted by mail.
“A mail-ballot election is warranted,” as a decision of an N.L.R.B. regional director explained in Amazon’s case, citing “the undeniable presence of Covid-19 both inside and outside the employer’s facility” and the “high and still-rising positivity rate” in Bessemer.
“The most important factors,” the decision stated, “are the safety of all election participants and the enfranchisement of all voters.”
Amazon appealed that decision last week to the N.L.R.B., which is still controlled by a Trump-appointed majority hostile to unions. The company contends that it could ensure the safety of on-site voting at the warehouse by offering health protections, including a heated tent, free coronavirus testing, disposable pencils, gloves and masks.
But Amazon’s arguments have repercussions beyond the pandemic. In its anti-union campaign lies a more sweeping condemnation of mail voting.
Ominously, Amazon echoes Mr. Trump’s false claims about electoral fraud to demand an in-person union election at the company warehouse, warning of “party fraud and coercion that is characteristic of mail-ballot elections.”
In the political sphere, it’s only too clear that falsehoods about mail voting laid the groundwork for inflammatory allegations of a rigged presidential election. Why, then, is Amazon clinging to these falsehoods in the labor sphere?
Because union elections held in the workplace give employers an advantage. On-site balloting allows companies to deliver anti-union messages while the polls are open, even when employees are at work, while keeping the union off employer property. Except in extraordinary circumstances, this type of voting was the rule before the pandemic. But it’s equivalent to states holding presidential elections in one party’s headquarters.
Mail balloting, by contrast, would lessen Amazon’s power to influence the votes of its employees.
Legislation to be reintroduced in Congress next month would limit employer use of workplace authority to influence voters in union elections. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would expand mail balloting, even after the pandemic subsides. The bill, which passed the House last session, would require the N.L.R.B. to conduct union elections by certified mail or electronically — or on neutral ground — when a union objects to balloting on company property.
Meanwhile, a ruling by the N.L.R.B. in the Amazon case is expected within days.
Amazon’s cynical attack on mail voting by warehouse workers makes all the more pressing congressional reform of union election law that would undo the unfairness of balloting on company property. Not only workplace democracy is at risk. In lending credence to deadly lies about mail-ballot election fraud, Amazon’s arguments strike a blow at political democracy.
Craig Becker is the general counsel to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., of which the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is an affiliate. He was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2010 to 2012. Amy Dru Stanley is a professor of labor and legal history at the University of Chicago.
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